How do you celebrate Presidents' Day? While most of us are grateful for a Monday off in the middle of gloomy February, exactly how to mark this commemoration of some of America's most revered leaders isn't totally clear. So here's a suggestion for you: why not use the day off to curl up with a book about (or by) a president?
For business leaders, presidential biographies and memoirs aren't just a great way to brush up on history, they're often also masterclasses in leadership, persuasion, and power. Here are some of the best of the bunch, according to reviewers, historians, and CEOs.
1. Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Probably the most famous presidential historian of our time, Doris Kearns Goodwin has won both the Pulitzer prize and the praise of many business leaders for her biographies of some of America's greatest leaders. This particular book delves into the formative years and defining crises of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
CEOs love it. "Business students invariably ask me: 'With what historical figure would you like to have lunch?' Doris Kearns Goodwin has prepared a marvelous banquet with four leaders whose lives provide lessons for all of us. Pull up a chair," said Warren Buffett. Former Salesforce CEO Keith Block claimed the book offers "invaluable lessons for anyone who leads a team, large or small."
2. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Kearns Goodwin's biography of President Abraham Lincoln attracted huge attention when a newly elected President Obama said he would use it as a blueprint for constructing his cabinet. He later said it's the book he'd want to take to a desert island.
Team of Rivals details how an obscure Illinois lawyer managed to best three better-known and better-educated rivals to become President and, eventually, save the union. The lessons in managing big personalities, turning enemies to allies, and facing down incredible challenges could certainly benefit just about any business leader.
3. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith
Eisenhower may not be the flashiest name in presidential history, but that's why leaders would do well to learn more about the man who led America through one of its longest periods of peace and prosperity. Boring, it turns out, can be both hard to achieve and highly desirable.
"The focus here is on the military experience that prepared Eisenhower for leadership: the ability to make do with limited means, to delegate authority, to cooperate with allies and keep up morale. It added up to a presidency marked by competence and stability," writes the New York Times of this book.
4. A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Why read a book about a former president when you can read a book by a former president? And if you're going to go for a memoir this Presidents' Day, Bill Gates insisted in a long blog post that Obama's is a particularly good choice.
"You have to be a pretty self-aware person to write a candid autobiography--something that politicians aren't exactly known for. Fortunately, President Obama isn't like most politicians. A Promised Land is a refreshingly honest book. He isn't trying to sell himself to you or claim he didn't make mistakes. It's a terrific read, no matter what your politics are," Gates writes.
He goes on to praise the book's honest portrayal of Obama's early struggles to master the more hands-on, public-facing aspects of leadership, as well as the detailed descriptions of how he made some of his toughest calls.
5. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
This far earlier entry in the genre of presidential memoirs is often lauded as the best of them all and regularly appears on lists of best books by and about U.S. presidents.
"The memoirs provide a vantage point on the nation's bloodiest and most defining conflict that only a soldier elemental to the war and its aftermath could offer," says the Guardian. "Considered to be one of the gold standards of military memoirs, Grant's book was an instant best seller, hailed by both critics and the public for its honesty and high literary quality, and has remained in print and on college curriculums ever since," notes The New York Times. If longevity is a sign of quality, Grant's memoirs are clearly a top-notch read.
6. The Accidental President by A.J. Baime
Ever worry you're not up to a job you've been given? Then perhaps spare a thought for poor Harry Truman who, upon unexpectedly becoming president after FDR's death, remarked: "I'm not big enough for this job." And what a job it was. Within the first four months of assuming the presidency, he was called upon to oversee the end of World War II along with the rather strong characters of Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
Historian Louis Mansur recommends The Accidental President for just this reason, writing that the book "illustrates the impossibility of predicting who will succeed in the Oval Office." Truman's rise reminds us that, when pushed by circumstances, humans can sometimes find within themselves undreamed of reserves of strength and resilience.
7. Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
If you're looking for a deep dive into the life of Lyndon B. Johnson, Master of the Senate is part of a four-volume biography from Caro, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. But if you want to focus in on just one aspect of Johnson's career, The New York Times suggests this volume covering Johnson's years as one of the Senate's most famed deal makers.
"The book reads like a Trollope novel, but not even Trollope explored the ambitions and the gullibilities of men as deliciously as Robert Caro does," wrote reviewer Anthony Lewis.
The entire biography is a masterclass in negotiation and power politics, according to fellow presidential biographer H W Brands who notes "Caro is fascinated by how people acquire power, what they use power to accomplish, and how power changes them." So are many business leaders.